Tuned In

Dead Tree Alert: The Thrill of Video Vs. the Agony of Tape-Delay

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Paul Drinkwater/NBC

I’ve taken my digs over the past week at NBC’s TV coverage of the London Olympics, but I also have to give credit where it’s due. The network’s decision to livestream every competition from the games–however buggy and dependent on a cable or satellite subscription–is a big, welcome improvement. In my print column in TIME magazine this week (subscription required), I pit NBC’s livestream against its TV coverage in the first Olympic video heptathlon. Spoiler alert: the livestream wins!

Of course, the whole thing is subjective—you may care about video quality more than I do, e.g.—and the livestream and TV broadcasts are all part of the same NBC team; any gold they collect goes to the same vault. But the comparison is interesting to me as an example of two different approaches to delivering media: one rough, immediate and user-directed, with a lot of choice; the other top-down, polished and limited by the needs of the network and its advertisers.

In theory, it could be the best of both worlds. But in practice, when 21st-century media expectations meet up with a 20th-century broadcast business model, you end up with a lot of complaints. The fact that you can stream major Olympic events live in the morning or afternoon, as they happen in London, reminds you that NBC could–but chooses not to–show them live as well in much better quality on TV, then repeat them in primetime.

The reason NBC doesn’t, most likely, is money: broadcasters airing Olympics from other time zones have always worried that showing marquee events live would cut their primetime ratings–where they make much more advertising money. There have always been viewers who complained about that.

What’s different now is the expectations. It’s not Roone Arledge’s 1960s; it’s the DVR, iTunes, online, On-Demand era. People know that it’s entirely technically possible to give them more of what they want. But TV networks still make their money off the old ways of doing business. Add to that the fact that in today’s mediasphere  it’s much easier to find out who won before a tape-delay airs, sometimes from NBC’s own ads.

(Personally, by the way, I don’t get too worked up about this, because I’m neither very spoiler-sensitive nor much of a sports fan. But I can relate to those who do get upset—the 200m butterfly does not have as much narrative subtext, independent of the ending, as an episode of Breaking Bad.)

So you have a disconnect between what’s possible and what you can make money from–and that makes for a more adversarial business relationship, in which a company like NBC profits best by making certain things less available, rather than more. (And it’s not just TV in this situation: look at, say, magazines who put content like my column behind paywalls, cough cough.) Hence all the #NBCfail complaints online–it may just be a vocal minority, but it’s also an example of how the media business has still not caught up with media technology.

One other advantage of the online livestream: you’re able to see what actually happens, as it happens, without any intervening editing monkey business. Because of the print magazine’s deadlines, my column closed before Tuesday night’s broadcast, in which NBC edited out a horrendous performance by a Russian gymnast that, had they shown it, would have removed any suspense as to whether the U.S. team would win gold. There’s no proving that the network cut the tumble in order to keep people from tuning out, but it’s hard to imagine another reason to leave out a moment that, by all reports, was shocking, dramatic and otherwise great TV.

Although one other interesting question about that–which I also can’t answer–is: does the average Olympics viewer want the competition edited for the more-boring truth, or for a more-exciting but deceptive narrative?

It’s arguable that people just prefer a more slicked-up entertainment package to actual sports news, especially when it comes to a sport they spend most of four years not following. Certainly, when it comes to complaints about the tape-delay coverage, NBC has pointed to its high ratings as proof people don’t care. Logically, it proves no such thing: it proves people want to watch the Olympics, not that the love NBC’s coverage. It’s not like you can flip over to ABC’s Olympic coverage if you’re annoyed.

But you tell me: do you prefer raw, live reality, or would you rather NBC made it a little better than real?